By Clara Maria Apostolatos
At Jane Lombard Gallery, a fan breathes life into the sculpture Behemoth (2022) until it inflates to the size of an equestrian statue. Standing at an imposing 11 feet tall, it assumes a monumental posture akin to statues of figures of power and authority, before deflating, then refilling, on a timed cycle. In the moment of complete deflation, the giant structure bows forward and collapses at the viewer’s feet. In its title, Behemoth conjures images of colossal beings, but shrouded by a black tarp it evokes removed monuments across the United States, such as the Robert E. Lee Monument in Charlottesville. The fan cries out in both a roar and a whimper, an allegory for how ostensibly immutable figures and ideologies find themselves vulnerable to shifts in societal values and the ebb and flow of public sentiment. Deflated of any nobility or monumentality, Behemoth illustrates how larger-than-life narratives fade and flatten. Their dominance—whether physical or figurative—is illusory, ultimately malleable and mutable. Behemoth is, after all, a sculpture upheld solely by air: its grandiosity materializes as a kind of hollow self-importance.
To conceptual artist Michael Rakowitz, monuments can have a monstrous quality. They are not just passive objects but active agents, and their one-sided accounts of history have accommodated themselves firmly to both the real and cultural landscapes of America, embodying campaigns of historical exclusion and violence waged in the name of patriotism. For his latest exhibition, The Monument, The Monster, and The Maquette, Rakowitz reframes the construction of monuments—those ostensibly enduring structures and lasting historical symbols, which in recent years have become subjects of calls for removal and reclamation—as an ongoing work in progress, akin to crafting a preliminary model for fixing memory to image.
“Monuments in Spolia,” a series of layered semi-transparent architectural vellum drawings, depict ancient and modern instances of spolia, the practice of appropriating or transforming pre-existing artifacts for contemporary uses to be prominently showcased in public spaces. In Rakowitz’s layered images, the original monument appears as a shadow of its evolved form. His subjects range from the melting down of ancient Greek bronzes to make coins to the repurposing of monuments as sites for political struggle, where marginalized groups contest narratives of conquest in Ukraine and sovereign Native American nations.
Monuments in Spolia 5 (2022) examines the conversion by American colonists of King George III’s statue into musket balls for the Revolutionary War. Here an authoritative figure’s symbolic and material representation was dismantled and repurposed as an instrument of self-governance and liberation. By contrast, Monuments in Spolia 4 (2022) sheds light on the historical and ongoing disenfranchisement of Native American communities. This piece superimposes a drawing of President William McKinley’s statue in Chicago’s McKinley Park over an outline of its original source, a bronze statue of Columbus. McKinley, as the enforcer of the Curtis Act, played a key role in dissolving the sovereign status of several Native American groups. These two images of men atop a tall podium hold remarkably similar stately postures, and indeed, the replacement of one statue celebrating colonialist narratives with a nearly identical one, no less affiliated with settler colonialism, reveals the fissures in the hegemonic legacy of monuments, even when they undergo recasting.
With the hybrid sculpture American Golem (2022), history takes on a tangible form, subject to reshaping and reinterpretation. Crafted from a diverse array of materials, including found antiques, granite, wood, and replicas of artifacts, Rakowitz’s sparse assemblage operates as a contemporary form of spolia and assumes a monstrous form: from its weathered, wooden bell-shaped torso, makeshift arms extend at sharp upward angles. An inverted, galloping horse metamorphosizes into a limb, while the opposite arm contorts into a raised first. Its head, a visage of undulating coils and gnarled teeth, is a copy of a Babylonian fired-clay mask depicting the mythological monster Humbaba from the Epic of Gilgamesh. It comprises as well a souvenir statue of Christopher Columbus, and busts and sculptures by artists whose memorials were toppled during the 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The base of American Golem incorporates a white mantelpiece supported by sizable wooden ball-and-claw feet reminiscent of Chippendale-style furniture. This design evokes the elaborate conventions of monument design, which imbue such ornate structures with a heightened rhetoric of splendor and stateliness.
Rakowitz meticulously explains the critical context of the materials that make up American Golem in elaborate annotations written across its disparate elements, employing a calligraphic quality that sharply contrasts with the conventional and seemingly timeless typography found on monument plaques. His anxious scrawls agitate the surface of the piece, unveiling uncomfortable truths hidden beneath the heroic facades of the monuments he references. Leaning in close to the misshapen statue, viewers are invited to engage more deliberately with these histories. Rakowitz illuminates the origins of found antiques, such as a medallion designed by Nancy Cox-McCormack, a “supporter of lynching and one-time-denouncer of Ida B. Wells,” and reveals the fact that the sphalerite used to make many Union and Confederate monuments was “extracted from a mine in Galena KS, on occupied land of the Osage Nation.”
While these objects of memory are reshaped into a new monumental form, they don’t fit precisely into the classical context of spolia related to war and conquest. Nonetheless they represent a form of victory over exploitative and hegemonic forces. Rakowitz treats history as tangible material and prompts us to question the origins, both material and ideological, of our monuments. More crucially, he asks us to consider how we can avoid creating new monsters in their reconstruction.